University of Pittsburgh professor Karen Matthews explored biological links to persistent social inequalities in childhood health during the 2017 Bronfenbrenner Lecture, held June 15 in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.
Hosted by the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in the College of Human Ecology, Matthews guided nearly 50 audience members through the most recent research on the inequality in health between children in different socio-economic groups.
“I was given the task of trying to lay out some of the key biological pathways that might be important in understanding connections between the social environment and children’s health,” said Matthews, a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and professor of epidemiology, psychology, and clinical and translational science at Pittsburgh. “And this is really a daunting task because there are so many things that impinge on children’s development that are important in this context; one could spend an entire semester on this topic.”
The lecture highlighted the mission of the Bronfenbrenner Center and the work of the late Cornell scientist Urie Bronfenbrenner, whose ecological systems theory recognized the need to consider multiple levels of interacting influences on a child’s development, including family, community and the greater culture.
Matthews’ work addresses the psychosocial and biological connections between socio-demographic factors and poor health; the development of cardiovascular behavioral risk factors in childhood and adolescence; the influence of menopause on women’s health; and the role of stress-induced physiological responses and sleep in the etiology of heart disease and hypertension.
Matthews stressed that poverty and low socio-economic standing are about more than dollars and cents; they also involve a slew of environmental and psychological factors that can impact a child’s development. Family turmoil, exposure to community violence, early childhood separation, substandard housing and exposure to toxins, noise and crowding all can impact a child’s health, she said.
“As you can imagine, poverty in childhood is not simply low income relative to needs, but also exposure to disadvantaged environments more generally,” she said. “Research points to 65 percent of median-income children in the analysis had zero or one of these particular exposures, whereas the poor had three to four.”
Matthews also reviewed how day-to-day factors can impact several of a child’s physiological systems including the cardiovascular, immune, inflammatory and sympathetic nervous systems.
“A number of the theories of how low socio-economic status or poverty gets under the skin of children have to do with exposure to chronic stress,” Matthews said. “Emotional stressors impact the cerebral cortex, which in turn impacts the hypothalamus, which activates corticotropin-releasing hormone and eventually leads to the release of cortisol.”
Cortisol, a byproduct of chronic stress, increases the risk of numerous health problems including anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain and concentration impairment, she said.
“You can imagine that this environment would not be conducive to positive children’s health,” Matthews said.
Matthews concluded the lecture with ideas for, and a small discussion about, future research focusing both on additional physiological parameters as well as holistic data measurement and research design that narrows down models for easier analysis.
She also discussed interventions that are considered low-hanging fruit. These include policy changes to prevent exposure to toxins, such as lead exposure through water pipes, and public service commitments to inform families about the research to help them make changes at home.
Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology.